Auguries of Power: Prophecy and Violence in the Satanic Verses

By Cavanaugh, Christine | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Auguries of Power: Prophecy and Violence in the Satanic Verses


Cavanaugh, Christine, Studies in the Novel


"All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end," predicts the narrator of Kim, Rudyard Kipling's classic orientalist adventure (45). The incendiary energy of Kipling's 1901 portrait of the religious zeal of prophecy persists in the imagination of the West. But a century later, it seems, holy zeal has lost its innocence: the frenzy of the visionary--now called the fanatic or the fundamentalist--is charged with violence. The change from the exotic to the terrifying in the Western view of Eastern prophets calls for analysis. Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, with its infamous inversions of the prophecies that shaped Islamic culture and Indian society, boldly confronts the aura of violence that now surrounds prophecy.

Rushdie invites the reader to listen attentively to a multitude of babbling voices as they clamor against one another. Rushdie challenges the reader to adjudicate this novel's founding competition between prophecy and its falsifications, between inspired verses and satanic verses. Indeed, the narrator asks "who has the best tunes?" (10). Because some of the prophets' "tunes" are deadly, the task of adjudicating among mantic voices is all the more urgent. Which babblers and visionaries are dangerous? Does their violence stem from prophecy itself, from falsifications of prophecy, or from both?

In listening to the voices, it is not enough to distinguish the degree of their religious fervor (moderate, zealous or extreme) or even the content of their predictions. Rather, to determine why many prophets are violent in The Satanic Verses, one must ask what kind of prophesying they engage in. Instead of simply condemning or acquitting one kind of prophecy or another, Rushdie presents prophets that defy categorization. (1) The theological and literary tropology of prophecy suggests that terrorism in this novel is a hybridized prophetic activity that exaggerates some elements of prophecy and falsifies others.

Many characters in the novel distort the prophetic tradition in three ways that generate violence. First, the violent prophet figures exaggerate mantic sympathy for divine wrath against injustice. Second, they collapse prediction and fulfillment into a single action. Third, they manipulate the fusion of truth and justice that characterizes the prophetic imagination.

A fourth distortion of the prophetic tradition emerges in the novel. The novel's critique of inscription and sacred text would seem to account for the violence of certain prophets by pitting textuality, the letter of the law, and tyranny against orality, spirit, and freedom. Ultimately, however, these oppositions break down in the face of the violence of the clerical tyrant. The tyrant's fantasy of timelessness requires one to look beyond the three distortions of the prophetic tradition to the fourth: the reversal of prophecy's mandate of newness.

A brief look at the dystopian genre demonstrates the convention of using prophecy as a trope to address power and violence. The literary tropology of prophecy often hearkens back to a longstanding purpose of prophecy: to rebel against tyranny. In writing about prophecy, Rushdie does more than address religion: like the dystopian novelists, he uses prophetic speech as a trope to address problems of oppressive power, violence and terror. (2) This trope is common in the classic dystopian novels, which project a future tyranny that is the logical outgrowth of present policy. In the novels, the juxtaposition of present and future invites readers to examine their own societies. For instance Ayn Rand's Anthem projects a dystopian future in order to warn against certain social trends that she considers incipiently tyrannical. (3) Dystopian novels like Rand's do not so much attempt accurate predictions of a real future as examine the present. …

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